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First Family of Chocolate

Sophia Markoulakis | January 23, 2018 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

When Etienne Guittard left France in search of gold, he landed in San Francisco with a dream and a stash of chocolate. Not long after arriving, though, he realized that chocolate—not gold—was going to make him rich. He had brought the chocolate to use as a form of currency, hoping to trade it for mining supplies, but it turns out, the miners were willing to pay top dollar for the chocolate. So he returned home and learned the chocolate-making trade from his uncle. In 1868, Etienne founded Guittard on San Francisco’s waterfront. This year marks the company’s 150-year anniversary; it is the oldest continuously family-run chocolate factory in the United States.

Two major events—the 1906 earthquake and the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway—eventually led to a move to Burlingame, where the firm’s no-frills factory and retro headquarters haven’t changed much since opening in the 1950s. (We’re talking wood paneling and Naugahyde furniture in the reception area, and tenured machinists who know just how much to push and tweak the vintage German and Swiss machinery.) It’s apparent that the Guittard legacy, built on loyalty, integrity and craft, lives on as well. Today, Gary Guittard, whose father Horace A. Guittard was the grandson of Etienne, runs the company. His daughter, Amy, is the marketing director and her cousin, Clark, heads up international sales. Tim Grace, Clark’s brother-in-law, is plant manager.

Like wine, chocolate also has provenance, and taking a tree’s genetics, adding different fermenting techniques and blending various beans together are key differentiators for Guittard that drive its consistent flavor innovations. Though the brand has a small consumer footprint with chips, baking cocoa and single-origin bars, the volume of its business is made up of bulk items that end up in sublime desserts and confections from places like New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar and Jacques Torres Chocolates, along with local businesses like San Francisco’s Wise Sons Bakery, Marlowe restaurant, Recchiuti Confections and Humphry Slocombe ice cream. Guittard’s cache is undeniable, and the company is committed to every customer, even the budding entrepreneur. San Mateo’s Antoine Tang, of Antoine’s Cookie Shop, had never heard of Guittard until three years ago, when his sister brought him a chocolate chip cookie from Yountville’s Bouchon. “At that point, I realized that I had to use their chocolate,” he says. “I’m proud to say that I use Guittard exclusively.”

Gary notes that, “We do a lot of educational outreach to ensure that our customers understand our product, and it’s fun to see chefs tailor a product to showcase the flavor of a particular single-origin chocolate.” The same outreach and educational approach applies to the farmers who grow the beans Guittard buys. When Amy joined the company five years ago, Gary was already involved in sustainability efforts within the cocoa-growing region. He was a founding member of the World Cocoa Foundation, and he continues to play a major role in organizations like the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, which helps farmers finesse their beans through evaluation and consultation. In the last few years, Amy has amplified those efforts, working closely with the company’s sustainability director, John Kehoe. They visit farmers along the cocoa-belt region (10 degrees either side of the equator) and implement programs that not only help them grow better fruit, but also educate them about flavor. “It’s a holistic journey to cultivate a better product,” says Amy. To that end, the company has established training centers—initially in Ghana, then expanding to the Ivory Coast, with their sights set on Java next.

It’s inevitable that Guittard’s future involves a second facility outside of the pricey Bay Area, and for the last several years, its 300,000-square-foot Fairfield warehouse has been used for storage and as a secondary distribution hub. Within the next year, it will be outfitted with chocolate-making equipment. While growth is on the family’s mind, selling to a large corporation isn’t. When asked about other Bay Area chocolate brands like Scharffen Berger and TCHO that succumbed to big buyouts, Gary points out that it is different when you have family members that can maintain what you’ve built. And at Guittard, the concept of family also embodies employees in the office and in the factory. When Gary’s father and brother died six months apart from each other in the late ’80s, his work family supported him and the company during those difficult days. “I went from being in an office with two other family members to being in an office alone,” he says. “When that happened, I relied on a lot of people for help. Everyone shared the emotion of the loss and stepped in to do their part. That has a lot to do with the company’s success.”

Originally published in the January/February issue of Silicon Valley

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